The Shiite-led government of Iraq’s Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki remained in paralysis on Friday, unable to form a coherent response after al-Qaeda-inspired militants blitzed and captured entire chunks of the nation’s Sunni heartland this week, including major cities.
The new reality is the biggest threat to Iraq’s stability since the US withdrawal at the end of 2011, and it has pushed the nation closer to a precipice that would partition it into Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish zones.
Fighters from the militant group known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant on Thursday vowed to march on Baghdad, joined by Saddam Hussein-era loyalists and other disaffected Sunnis.
Trumpeting their victory, the militants also declared they would impose Shariah law in Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city they captured on Tuesday, and other areas they seized.
In northern Iraq, Kurdish security forces moved to fill the power vacuum – taking over an air base and other posts abandoned by the army in the ethnically mixed city of Kirkuk.
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Three planeloads of Americans were being evacuated from a major Iraqi air base in Sunni territory north of Baghdad, US officials said, and Germany urged its citizens to immediately leave parts of Iraq, including Baghdad.
President Barack Obama said Iraq will need more help from the US, but he did not specify what it would be willing to provide. Unnamed senior US officials said Washington is considering whether to conduct drone missions in Iraq.
The UN Security Council met on the crisis, underscoring the growing international alarm over the stunning advances by the Islamic State.
Al-Maliki had asked parliament to declare a state of emergency that would give him and his Shiite-led government increased powers to run the country, but the lawmakers failed to assemble a quorum on Thursday.
Skirmishes continued in several areas. Two communities near Tikirt- the key oil refining center of Beiji and the city of Samarra, home to a prominent Shiite shrine – remained in government hands, according to Iraqi intelligence officials.
In Saddam’s hometown of Tikrit, overrun by the militants on Wednesday, witnesses said fighters raised posters of the late dictator and Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, his former deputy who escaped the 2003 US-led invasion and eluded security forces ever since.
Baghdad authorities tightened security and residents stocked up on essentials. Hundreds of young men crowded in front of the main army recruiting center in Baghdad on Thursay after authorities urged Iraqis to help battle the insurgents.
Security officials said the Islamic State fighters managed to take control of two weapons depots holding 400,000 items, including AK-47 rifles, rockets and rocket-propelled grenades, artillery shells and mortars.